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American Sniper and Stephen Harper make war with words

War hawks and their simplistic "us vs. them" mentality don't make us safer— they put all of us at risk

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Especially during this time of global conflict, Harper's words need to be examined through a critical lens. Indian rights advocate Gandhi once enunciated “Seven Deadly Sins” in his lifetime, and to these, Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, has added an eighth: “Rights without responsibility.” 

Having the right to “freedom of expression” simply means that there are no adverse legal consequences for speaking, acting or dressing in a particular way, at a certain time, in a certain cultural setting, and in a certain place. 

Speech, of course, is only one narrow segment of an unbroken continuum of expression, which ranges from words to body language, clothing, symbols and general conduct, and is portrayed in a variety of media.

Harper’s words in 24 Seven, for instance, are spoken against a smoothly-flowing backdrop of militaristic, war-related imagery.

Clint Eastwood, director of American Sniper, presents Chris Kyle’s soldiering with carefully chosen imagery – and even horrible, fictional Muslim characters – that rationalize and glorify war. In the film, the motto scrawled on the side of US soldiers’ weaponry is “Despite what your momma told you … violence does solve problems.”

All forms of communication always and inevitably have a variety of impacts,  values, and costs. They are never truly free, because they all involve, at a bare minimum, two truths. There is the truth of the person speaking or acting or behaving, and the truth of the person seeing or hearing or sensing.

“Communication” involves an audience, a relationship.

If you critique big business, you might be in line for a perfectly legal SLAPP suit.

In France, Charlie Hébdo belongs to a local cultural tradition of acidulous political and social satire going back to Voltaire and beyond, in which one may excoriate most classes or cultures or ways of life. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, the national tradition is that you can say anything rude you like about any aspect of Western industrial civilization, or against Jews, or against Christians, but not against the Muslim faith, or against the state.

One thing is clear, however: since 9/11, you can say or portray just about anything vile you like about Muslims, and with a film like American Sniper, you can even make a record amount of cash doing so. Anti-Arab hate speech has skyrocketed on social media since the movie was released, yet no one takes responsibility for the damage and disruption this causes in people's lives.

In Canada, long a bastion of multiculturalism, we now have a Conservative government inuring us, by subtle and sometimes un-subtle means, to an attitude of aggression towards the Muslim world – instead of an even-handed condemnation of extremism, which exists as part of any and all traditions and cultures. Harper's statement even comes across as deeply hypocritical, given Canada's unprecedented sale of arms and weaponry to countries like Saudi Arabia.

Now, universally available high-definition video – the kind used in the Conservative Party’s carefully shaped YouTube creations – can reach deep into our psyches, and do good – or do serious harm.

We could seek out political leaders who really believe in the goal of a peaceful and sustainable world, in contrast to the bellicose Mr. Harper. 

No more belligerent and inflammatory verbal salvos, creating fear and loathing among the emotionally fragile and ill-informed – now that would be a good start.

The security of ordinary Canadians is at stake.

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